Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Mayhem in Matawan

Mayhem in Matawan
Written by NJ Historian

Today, Matawan, New Jersey is a small, sleepy, close-knit suburb in Monmouth County. However, this suburb was once a bustling port community and early industrial center. Behind that success lies mayhem; from as early as the Revolutionary War through the early twentieth century, Matawan has seen is share of problems that have mostly faded into the annals of history.

Present-day Matawan was founded about 1686 by Scotch Presbyterians who settled at the crossing of two Indian trails. The town originally was known as Middletown Point. Large sloops once navigated to the center of town via Matawan Creek. By the second quarter of the nineteenth century, the creek began to silt and was no longer navigable by ships. 


Horror on the Home Front
In 1723, John Bowne, III built a three-story home in Middletown Point. This three story, side-hall plan home contained a front and rear parlor on the first floor, three bedrooms on the second floor, and rooms in an attic for servants. The rubble-stone in the foundation were originally used as ballast in ships from Europe. Due to the early age of settlement and lack of records, not much is known about John Bowne. 

In 1769, the home was purchased by John Burrowes, Sr. Burrowes' father, Eden, fled to the colonies during the seventeenth century to avoid religious persecution. He moved from Long Island to Monmouth County and established a plantation on Chapel Hill Road near Middletown Village. By his twenties, his son, John, had become a successful shipping merchant. He worked in a partnership with Captain John Watson. Watson died at sea in the first few years of business. John married his former partner's widow, Hope Taylor. Over time, Burrowes acquired new partners, such as wealthy merchant Samuel Forman, Perter Imlay, and Richard Hartshorne. Burrowes was also a successful farmer, earning the nickname "Corn King." He was a major supplier to the Continental Army. Burrowes' loyalty with the colonies was no secret. He was a known member of the Sons of Liberty in 1765 and 1766, and served as a delegate to the Provincial Congress, which chose members to serve in the Continental Congress. 

John Burrowes, Sr. went as far as allowing members of the local militia to practice and drill on his property, right in front of the house! John Burrowes, Jr. became caught up in the fervor of independence and would often join in the drills on the property. This constant drilling drew the attention of local Tories in Monmouth County. Sometime between 1776 and 1778, John, Jr. married Margaret Forman, daughter of his father's partner. Members of the Forman family were known for being friendly with George Washington and part of a spy network. The young Burrowes was actively involved with these family members and quickly became an officer in Forman's regiment of the Continental Army.


As the war escalated, young Burrowes moved his wife back to the mansion where he would spend every break he received from the Army. His visits back home were noticed, perhaps by Hope Taylor Burrowes, who had many relatives that were Tories. On May 28, 1778, John Burrowes was spotted at his father's house and the British in the area seized the opportunity to capture him. As the troops neared Middletown Point, the alarm was sounded and the the local militia assembled. As the British came upon Borrowes' millpond, they were met with opposition. While fighting broke out, mills, boats, storehouses, and other buildings along the waterfront were set ablaze. A detachment of British troops continued their march to the Burrowes Mansion. However, Burrowes had received word that the British were coming for him and local tradition holds that he escaped through a rear window of the home. It is said that he was in such a rush that he left a boot behind. Burrowes ran across the backyard and swam across the creek, seeking safety in the thick woods on the other side. According to David Forman's written manuscript, John Burrowes, Jr. hid in the woods for two days without food to avoid detection.

Meanwhile at the mansion, it was roughly midnight when the British arrived to find Burrowes. The troops pushed their way into the home, startling Margaret Burrowes. With a shawl on, a British officer demanded that she give it to them to bind the wound of an injured soldier. Her response has been reported as being "You'll not get my shawl or anything else here to aid a British subject." Her response was not well received and she was struck by the hilt of the officer's sword. The soldiers searched the house for Burrowes and fired shots into the attic, which can still be seen in the plaster on the ceiling. Most of the homes furnishings were removed and burned on the lawn.

Burrowes, both father and son, died tragically at sea, without much wealth, as their fortunes were destroyed during the raid on Middletown Point. The Burrowes Mansion remained in the family after the death of John Burrowes, Jr. The property was in the care of his mother, who was also in the charge of caring for his three children after Margaret died in 1787. After his mother died, for a short time, the community raised funds to care for the orphan children.

The Brown Bedroom at the Burrowes Mansion.
About 1800, an existing home was added onto the original section of the Burrowes Mansion. This smaller, two bay section was set upon a field-stone foundation and moved to the site. It is unknown where the structure came from. 

About 1850, the building was transformed into the Steamboat Hotel but only four short years later became the home of a dentist for over forty years. In 1904, the home was purchased by Benjamin F. S. Brown, owner and publisher of the Matawan Journal, a local newspaper. Between 1935 and 1938, a colonial tea room operated out of the parlors of the house, while the upstairs rooms were rented to local single schoolteachers. The building remained in the Brown family until 1974 when it was purchased by the Borough of Matawan for use as a museum. Today it is listed on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places.


Horror in the Creek
In July of 1916, Matawan endured a day of terror in the water. Between July 1st and 12th, a series of shark attacks occurred along the New Jersey coast. Beach Haven and Spring Lake were the locations of the first two shark attacks. On Wednesday, July 12, eleven miles from the ocean in Matawan Creek, the unthinkable took place. Matawan's location made it unlikely for sharks, and when Thomas Cottrell, a sea captain and Matawan resident, spotted an eight foot long shark in the creek in the early afternoon, the town dismissed him. Local business owners and residents believed he was delusional from a combination of the extreme summer heat and the recent commotion along the shore regarding the shark attacks. While there was a debate in town about he saw, around 2:00 pm that fateful day, local boys, including Lester Stillwell, 11, were playing in the creek at an area called the Wyckoff dock. The day had been extremely hot and Lester was allowed time off by his father for completing about 150 peach baskets. In the water the boys saw what appeared to be an "old black weather-beaten board or a weathered log." A dorsal fin appeared in the water and the boys realized it was a shark. Before Stillwell could climb from the creek, the shark attacked him and pulled him underwater.

Matawan Journal, July 13, 1916.
The other boys ran to town for help, and several men, including local businessman Watson Stanley Fisher, 24, came to investigate. Fisher and others dived into the creek to find Stillwell's body, and he was also attacked by the shark in front of the townspeople. Fisher was pulled from the creek without recovering Stillwell`s body. His right thigh was severely injured and he bled to death at Monmouth Memorial Hospital in Long Branch later that afternoon. Stillwell's body was recovered 150 feet upstream from the Wyckoff dock on July 14.


Horror in the Sky
A little over two years later, on October 4, 1918, Matawan was rocked by a series of explosions at an ammunition plant operated by the T. A. Gillespie Company, located in the Morgan section of Sayreville. The initial explosion triggered a fire and subsequent series of explosions continued for three days. The facility, said to be one of the largest in the world at the time, was destroyed along with more than 300 buildings, forcing reconstruction of South Amboy and Sayreville. The explosions were felt within a radius of fifty miles. The explosion caused Matawan to be evacuated and all businesses were ordered closed. Families were evacuated into the "country and places beyond" according to the Matawan Journal. Plate glass windows were destroyed, ceilings fell down, and walls cracked. The greatest damage was to the Methodist Church, where a large memorial stained glass window was destroyed. A plaster ceiling in the Burrowes Mansion fell down and was never replaced, exposing the hand-hewn beams that were concealed by it. Railroad travel was disrupted for days. Over one hundred people were killed, mostly plant employees, and hundreds of others injured. The explosions shocked the residents of Matawan. Most had never experienced such a horror only about five miles from home.

The Music Room at the Burrowes Mansion, where the plaster ceiling fell down during the 1918 Gillespie Explosion.
Over the past two hundred years, Matawan has seen its share of mayhem and crisis. Once a bustling colonial port community, Matawan transformed into an industrial center, producing tile, a variety of ceramics, brick, pianos, steel, rice products, and canned fruit and vegetables. As time passed, the community transformed itself into a suburb, losing most of the industries that it relied on for so many years. Today, the community is still anchored by an active downtown with historic storefronts and a train station. Charming homes line Main Street, including the famed Burrowes Mansion, revealing that this small community still has a lot of charm left to be discovered.


Additional photos of my trip to the Burrowes Mansion on Pinterest

Audio
Mayhem in Matawan (right click and choose "save target/link as" to save to your hard drive)

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